Step into the study, pour yourself a cup of coffee, get comfortable and let’s enjoy the Gospel of Mark.
Our passage today is Mark 1:16-20. ” And passing along by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and followed him (RSV).
The disciples are central characters in Mark’s gospel. They are the witnesses of Jesus’ ministry from beginning to end, thereby qualifying them to testify to others about Jesus. There has been much controversy about exactly how Mark wants his readers to think about the disciples. I am not convinced this question can be entirely answered, but I do believe Mark wants us to identify with the disciples. What Jesus says to the disciples he is often saying to the reading audience. What happens to the disciples is often what is happening to anyone who follows Jesus. The choice, actions and feelings of the disciples are meant to reflect our own.
The calling of disciples at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry is agreed on by all the gospels. The identification of some of these disciples with fishermen is also attested by all four. Mark does not tell us if Jesus had any relationship with these men before the events described in our passage and the reader could logically conclude that this is the first time any had met Jesus, but I find this unlikely. John’s gospel says that some of the disciples were followers of John the Baptist and John had pointed out Jesus as the one they should follow. We could also easily see Jesus being involved with these men before this conversation. Mark has many things he wants to tell us about discipleship, but that it begins with no prior knowledge of Jesus is probably not one of them.
In the time of Jesus, rabbis were generally sought by disciples and would ask to become a follower. (Matthew 8:19) Jesus initiates the discipleship relationship in every instance we know of. “Come follow me” is a sentence that rings to the core of what Jesus Christ asks of us. While I have no doubt Mark wants to record Jesus’ conversation, we should hear far more. At the outset of his ministry Jesus asks men to abandon their security and follow him, defining their entire life by their relationship to him. He is their future and he is their way. (John 14:6) Today it is popular to speak of “accepting Christ” and “asking Jesus into your heart.” These phrases are not found in the Bible and they define the Christian life in terms that are deficient. Christ calls us to follow him. Learn from him. Imitate him. Accompany him. We can never exhaust the possibilities of what it means to follow Jesus.
We should note that there is no separation between evangelism and discipleship with Jesus. (See Matt 28:19) When we make the decision to believe in Jesus as savior, we are answering his call to follow him. Faith is an event, but never at the expense of being a journey. This is especially important to me as one who works with young people. When dealing with young Christians, I must resist the tendency to see a believer as a finished product. We are all called to follow Jesus, so our response to Him is constantly the call to move forward, to drop what hinders and to move into the future that is God’s Kingdom. This means that even when I have failed, I can always follow Jesus. The greatest expression of response to Jesus is not worship (hope no one has to pick themselves up after I said that!) but simply following him. The faithful response of the follower is what Jesus desires; to follow him in order to know him in order to serve him.
I have always appreciated this aspect of the gospels because it serves as a counterpoint to the increasing tendency to see Christianity in terms of mystical experience or esoteric knowledge. Even a child may follow. One need not be eloquent or gifted to follow. To follow does not call on me to be “holy Joe” or even especially religious. Jesus simply asks me to follow. Following may mean learning the simplest lesson or making the smallest step or doing the lowliest deed. But I am still to follow.
The men Jesus called to follow him were businessmen. We have some indication that they were not poor (1:20). They were, as the Jews later observed in Acts 4:13, “unlearned and ignorant men.” This is particularly true in terms of formal religious training. Even though Mark often shows the disciples as very slow to learn and confused, he does not mean to portray them as stupid. They are simply typical men who have defined their lives in terms of making a living and providing for their families. They are practical men, not scholars and scribes. We should remember that there is no previous resume needed to follow Jesus. It is safe to say that Jesus is not inviting the religiously-inclined to places of prominence in the Kingdom. If anything, Jesus holds up the un-religious as the ideal subjects of the Kingdom. Christianity does not ask its followers to become monks, scholars or mystics in order to understand the truth of the Gospel. What God has to show any of us, does not depend on IQ or whether we are spiritually inclined. In a sense, the Gospel is the perfect message for the nonreligious person. (Let’s always treasure this truth. Most of the trouble in Christianity has been caused by the religious and the “so-called” experts!)
Jesus also lays out another important truth: discipleship is transformational. He will take what we are and make us useful to him. “Fishers of men” may have been an image used in Jeremiah 16:16, but most likely Jesus is simply using the available imagery of his followers world to describe what the journey will mean. The persons that have seen as their lives as catching fish will become “fishers” of another kind, catching men for the Kingdom of God. It is entirely acceptable to look at whatever we are and whatever we do and see it as the very thing Jesus will transform and elevate for his service. We need not desire to be something new and exotic in order to be a useful Christian. God will demonstrate his power and his love by taking the ordinary and making it useful and even extraordinary for him. “What do you have in your hand Moses?” was God’s way of telling his Old Testament servant that he can take whatever we have to offer and use it. David was a shepherd of sheep who became the shepherd of a nation. God is doing the same through Jesus.
Mark also includes an immediacy to the disciple’s response. Decisiveness is a hallmark of humanity’s response to Jesus. In Mark, men quickly react to Jesus as either worthy of faith or worthy of death. Discipleship is not a hasty matter to be pursued thoughtlessly, but at the same time Jesus is not calling us to consider at our leisure and respond when ready. No, “Today is the day of salvation.” Paul makes it clear that we already know enough and have seen enough to respond rightly to the invitation to repent and believe. But this immediate response must also be a laying down of our current lives and the taking up of a new one. As we read these names, we realize that these are men with families and obligations and bills just like us, yet they were so changed by Jesus that they left all and followed him. Jesus was aware of what this meant. He told his disciples to count the cost (Luke 14:28ff) and to not follow him with a divided loyalty. (Matthew 8:18-22) This is one reason I support the use of the public invitation. For all its faults and flaws and potential (and actual) abuses, it is appropriate for us to publicly and decisively ask men and women, boys and girls to follow Jesus Christ on the spot.
It is John’s gospel that most eloquently portrays Jesus words of what actually happens at this moment. John 6:44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. Verse 65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father. God is the great initiator of our relationship with him. While we were yet sinners, God showed his love for us: Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8) Before we knew him, before we thought of him, before we could ever say yes- God was already at work. Have you ever wondered why it was these men at that place at that time? Why not someone else? Such is the great grace of God that each of us who has heard his voice can say “He loved me long before I heard his voice; His love reached out, even before my choice.” Let us follow such a wonderful Savior to the end of our days and beyond, into the days he is making for us.
1. Why should anyone follow Jesus?
2. Michael points out that “accepting Christ” and “asking Jesus into my heart” are not Biblical phrases. Is he being too picky here or is there really a potential problem with this kind of language?
3. What is the relationship between evangelism and discipleship?
4. Explain how faith is both an event and a journey? Why is this important?
5. Do you believe the disciples knew Jesus before this event?
6. What does Michael mean that Christianity is the perfect religion for the non-religious? What would you say to someone who says “I’m not interested in Christianity because I’m not religious”?
7. Have you ever wondered why Christ called you?
8. Why did Jesus seem to encourage decisive decisions about him?
9. What would be the most difficult thing for you to give up in order to obediently follow Jesus?
10. If Jesus were inviting you to follow him, what might he say he would turn you into?
11. How would you respond to the person who says “I will accept Christ later, when I’m more ready.”?
12. Why didn’t Jesus go solo? What was the point of getting a bunch of disciples on board at the very beginning?
13. What does it mean to follow Jesus? If you were explaining this to a person who had no idea what such a phrase meant, how would you give it meaning?
14. Michael says that following Jesus, not worship, is the highest response we make to Jesus. What do you think of this statement?